For the second time this season Manchester United lost to Chelsea in controversial circumstances with the officials’ decisions pivotal in handing Carlo Ancelotti’s side all three points. Chelsea’s 2-1 victory at Old Trafford, much like the Londoners 1-0 win at Stamford Bridge in November, earned with a goal that should never have been.
Substitute Didier Drogba’s 78th minute winner, lashed past Edwin van der Sar at the near post, stood despite the Ivorian being at least two yards offside. In November Chelsea profited from John Terry’s header following a highly dubious free-kick.
This time Mike Dean’s performance at Old Trafford was among the worst Sir Alex Ferguson’s side has suffered in recent months. The result, with just five games remaining, hands Chelsea a two point advantage in the Premier League title race with a superior goal difference to boot.
In truth United’s limitations, as they have been all season, stretched well beyond incompetent officialdom with the home side lacking either drive or invention during a first half that Chelsea dominated.
The home side struggled to retain possession for the second game in a row, with none of the home Ferguson’s three central midfielders able to create a platform for lone striker Dimitar Berbatov. On this evidence, it is not unfair to suggest time is catching up on the last of United’s golden generation, with Paul Scholes, Ryan Giggs and Gary Neville each poor.
Chelsea took the lead on 20 minutes with the superb Florent Malouda running past Darren Fletcher and Neville before delivering for Joe Cole to flick home the opener. It was no more than the visitors deserved for far greater endeavor.
Berbatov cut an isolated figure with neither Giggs, Antonio Valencia nor Park Ji-Sung able to get close enough to the Bulgarian to offer support. Yet Dean denied the South Korean a clear penalty after the Yuri Zirkov felled the midfielder inside the area on a rare foray forward by United.
Moments later and Chelsea could have added a second after goalscorer Cole put in Paulo Ferreira only for the defender’s shot to role inches wide.
With the half-time hairdryer suitably employed United finally took the game to Chelsea as the home side piled forward in search of an equaliser. On the hour Berbatov headed just wide from Giggs’ cross in United’s best effort of the match to that point.
But with Drogba held in reserve by Ancelotti the big striker was always going to have a say in the outcome. With 12 minutes remaining the former Marseille forward delivered Chelsea’s denouement. It mattered little to the visitors that Drogba was yards offside.
Federico Macheda’s goal, bundled in off his midriff minutes later, set-up a tense final 10 as United threw everything at Chelsea in the knowledge that defeat could mean the end of this season’s Premier League aspirations.
And with moments to go Berbatov missed a glorious chance to equalise.
Unsurprisingly Ferguson aimed his ire at both linesman and referee in the aftermath.
“The linesman was directly in front of him, there was not a soul near him and he gets it wrong,” Ferguson said.
“In a game of that magnitude, to get that wrong, it’s very poor.”
Referee Dean, who gave Blackburn a dubious penalty last weekend after a deliberate dive by Martin Olsson, has been under intense pressure this week and Ferguson, asked if this had affected the official, admitted his pre-match concern about about the Merseyside official’s appointment.
“You expect officials to get that one right,” added United’s assistant manager Mike Phelan.
“It was not even close. Their job is to keep their composure and they failed to do that.”